Zephyr’s Street Pizza is now open at 968R Farmington Ave. in West Hartford Center.
By Ronni Newton
“Zephyr” may mean gentle breeze, but Dante Cistulli has instead created a whirlwind with his new restaurant, Zephyr’s Street Pizza, which opened at the very end of September at 968R Farmington Ave., in West Hartford’s Center’s Brace Road parking lot.
Cistulli brings years of experience, and even more passion, to the new restaurant.
He learned to make dough and pasta from his grandmother when he was 5, but officially started his career as a chef at Naples Pizza in Farmington. Among the other places he’s worked was Millwright’s in Simsbury, and Max’s Oyster Bar, and he was the managing partner when Max Restaurant Group opened Savoy Pizzeria and Craft Bar on West Hartford’s LaSalle Road in 2016.
He was taking a hiatus but thinking about opening his own place in West Hartford when he learned the space in the Brace Road lot was again available when Barb’s Pizza decided to close.
“I’ve always loved that little space, always had an attachment to that spot,” Cistulli said. He used to go there in high school when it was a coffeehouse with an open mic night, and it’s where he first met his wife, Stephanie, who was a server there when it was Backstage Pizza.
While a number of pizza-related restaurants have cycled through the spot, which is accessible from the parking lot or an alley next to Center Framing on Farmington Avenue, Cistulli, who has a strong following in the industry and is overflowing with positive energy, is confident that Zephyr’s Street Pizza will be a success.
“This is 100% the dream, right down to the location, how I’m doing it, everything on the menu, the thoughts and the ideas,” Cistulli said. “It’s my brainchild, and I’m very proud of it.”
Family, pizza, skateboarding – Cistulli’s passions are all key elements of Zephyr’s Street Pizza.
The restaurant is named after Cistulli’s and Stephanie’s, not-quite-2-year-old son, Zephyr (the name is a nod to the iconic Zephyr Competition Team aka of Z-boys, a group of California skateboarders). Skateboard art adorns the walls. The “Bella Roni” pizza is named for Cistulli’s teenage daughter, Bella.
The restaurant opening was delayed slightly because Cistulli and his wife were about to have another child. Finn was born in August, and Cistulli said he’ll need to think of something to name after him, too.
Pizza comes in just one size, which Cistulli said is “medium,” with a crust that measures roughly 15 inches. It’s really dictated by the oven space, he said.
The pizzas are definitely large enough for two people to share.
He also makes large pizzas to cut up into ample slices. They’re initially slightly under-cooked, so when ordered they can be reheated to perfection. “Some people would argue, myself included, that a reheated slice is better than a slice out of the oven,” Cistulli said.
“At lunch, slices are definitely the go to,” he said. But everything on the menu can be made quickly, and the pizzas are only in the oven for 7-10 minutes.
Most of the pizzas have unique and distinctive names, and like the Bella Roni many are named for or in honor of important people in Cistulli’s life, or are references to pop culture in the 80s or 90s .
The “Kurts” – a red pizza with garlic, basil, parm, and dry oregano – is named for Kurt Kruczek, the owner of Naples Pizza where he got his start. “It’s his favorite pizza,” Cistulli said.
At Naples, Cistulli learned how to make New York-style pizza, but while he has the big slices, what he’s doing at Zephyr’s Street Pizza is somewhat different. “The dough that I make is more a bread dough recipe procedure, similar to what you’d see in a wood-fired pizzeria,” he said. He cooked over wood at Savoy, but Zephyr’s has a gas oven.
The OG Street Taco is a variation of a pizza Cistulli has been making for a while, and one that’s long been a favorite. A white pie, it’s topped with braised Calabrian pork, fontina, pico, parsley, creme fraiche, and shredded Napa cabbage. The large slices are perfect candidates for a “Z-fold,” Cistulli said.
A Z-fold, he demonstrated, involves folding the point and crust end together, and then folding in each side to resemble a taco, so the pizza can conveniently be eaten while standing, or walking, without the toppings falling off. “Mmm … that’s good,” Cistulli said as he took a bite of the slice used for an example.
The Abeets Mascolo (a meatball pizza), well that’s an inside joke, Cistulli said, between him and one of his good friends who was a groomsman in his wedding.
“Tatanka, that’s a ‘Dances with Wolves’ thing,” Cistulli said. It’s the name Kevin Kostner’s character uses to describe a buffalo. “I thought that would be a hilarious name for a Buffalo pizza,” he said, and at Zephyr’s Street Pizza it describes a pizza topped with braised Buffalo chicken, fontina, pepperocini, pico, Calabrian crumb, and shredded Napa.
Then there’s the soft serve.
“I always wanted a soft serve ice cream machine, but they’re very expensive,” Cistulli said. One day his godfather stopped by while he was working on the buildout.
“He said, ‘I know someone who’s got a soft serve ice cream machine for sale,'” Cistulli said. The owner of Dunphys – a place Cistulli had gone to all the time as a kid – had passed away, and they were liquidating the equipment. The representative from Taylor who serviced it said it was one of the most well-maintained machines ever.
Cistulli’s godfather has a pizza named after him, too.
Before securing the current space, Cistulli said he and Stephanie had decided they wanted to do something on their own, without business partners. They had a small budget, and considered a food truck. But after helping out on his friend Eric Stagl’s food truck, Craftbird, he decided that a brick and mortar business would be better suited for his current family situation. “It felt like it was a better fit for me,” Cistulli said. Stagl and the chicken-centric Craftbird truck have a pizza in their honor – the Yard bird, with braised chicken thigh, fontina, Calabrian breadcrumbs, honey sriracha, and pickle relish.
For those who don’t want pizza, there are several different salads, as well as hot dogs.
“I love hot dogs, so I had to have a hot dog,” Cistulli said.
He’s also passionate about the crust dippers – available with dips that range from Nutella, to black truffle, to ranch, to even soft serve ice cream.
Zephyr’s Street Pizza has a selection of beer on tap, as well as wine, and craft cocktails made by Drink Mechanics.
“Aaron and I, we’ve known each other since we were kids,” Cistulli said of his Farmington High School classmate, Drink Mechanics co-owner Aaron Stepka, a noted mixologist.
Stepka and his partner, Taylor Gillaspie, came up with the cocktail mixtures, and Cistulli originated the creative names such as Coleco Vision (honoring a vintage gaming system) and Goofy Footed, a reference to a skateboarding stance. The “Shaka” is named for a surfer who lost three fingers when he was bitten by a shark. Beware, the cocktails are potent, with each can the equivalent of two drinks.
The concept of Zephyr’s Street Pizza is the culmination of ideas that Cistulli has had for the past five, or even the past 10 years, he said. And he’s confident that others will like the vibe, and the food.
“I think what I’m doing is special,” he said. To start, he’s hoping to attract patrons who’ve followed him and the culture he’s helped build at previous restaurants.
“All you’ve got to do is come once, and you’re coming back,” Cistulli said.
Following the remodel, Zephyr’s Street Pizza is bright and airy, and there’s a new pick-up window where you can get your food – including soft serve – without needing to even go inside.
There’s also a great patio, where acoustic music will be available Wednesdays and some other nights, weather permitting. And S’mores on the patio, too.
Cistulli is a self-described “Pinterest animal,” and said he designed the Zephyr’s Street Pizza space and did much of the work himself. He’s also very grateful to the extensive assistance provided by his father-in-law, Dan Daley.
The menu can be found here, and is also attached as a PDF below.
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